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What SaaS Companies Forget to Talk About

Milk Shelves at Whole Foods

In the beginning, the problem facing Software-as-a-Service offerings was that they weren’t software. At least not in the traditional, on-premise sense that customers were accustomed to. To compete, then, as is often the case, SaaS had to become that which it competed with. Which meant that, fundamentally different delivery model or no, SaaS companies grew to resemble the software companies they were competing with, and in some cases, replacing. Everything from sales models (multi-year contracts) to the people hired away from on-premise software vendors by SaaS alternatives reinforced this idea, which to varying extents persists in SaaS companies to this day.

None of this is surprising, or in most cases, problematic. It was, after all, an adaptation to a market, one driven in large part by customer expectations. It does mean that SaaS companies have curious blind spots, however. So conditioned have they been to think and sell like the on-premise products they compete with that they’ve almost forgotten that they’re not on-premise themselves. The most obvious example of this at work is one that we’ve been discussing with our SaaS clients more and more of late.

Consider the enterprise IT landscape today. At virtually every level of infrastructure, there exist multiple, credible freely available open source options to pick from. From the VM to the container to the operating system to the scheduler to the database, choice abounds. Many of these were solutions first and products second, which means that while there may be rough edges, they have in many cases been proven to work at a scale that an average customer will never experience. Time was you had to have “bakeoffs” between competing commercial products to see if they would handle your transaction volume. These days, unless you handle more traffic than the likes of Facebook, Google or Twitter, that’s probably not necessary.

This is a remarkable achievement for an industry that at one time was dominated by expensive, functionally limited products that might or not work for a given project but guaranteed a poor developer experience. It is an achievement that has not come without a cost, however, and that cost is choice.

As has been documented in this space multiple times, the increasing volume of high quality open source software is bringing with it unintended consequences, among them lengthier and more challenging evaluations. As much as organizations didn’t appreciate only being able to choose from a small handful of expensive application servers, that was an approachable, manageable choice. There was one model and two or three vendors.

Today, there are many models to choose from, and thus many choices to be made. Public or private infrastructure. If it’s private, what does the infrastructure consist of? OpenStack? Cloud Foundry? Kubernetes? Mesos? What is the appropriate atomic unit of computing? VM? Container? App?

For organizations that are both capable and view their technical infrastructure as a competitive edge, this is a golden age. Never before has so much high quality engineering – tech that would been unimaginably expensive even a decade ago – been available at no cost. And free to modify.

This does not, however, describe most organizations. By and large enterprises are doing well today to merely keep their heads above water with a well thought out and accepted public versus private infrastructure strategy, never mind all of the other choices that follow from there.

Which brings us back to the businesses offering SaaS solutions. When they brief us, they spend the majority of their time talking about their engineering, their usability, their sales, their partners, their pedigree and so on. They discuss not at all, in general, the biggest potential differentiator they have: the absence of choice.

This again is understandable: very few vendors want to go to market saying “no more choices for you.” But the time is coming, quickly, when this might be exactly the right message. If you have a hosted application platform, for example, do you really want to get bogged down in a feature comparison between an on-premise alternative? Or would you prefer to call attention to the fact that all of the evaluation that goes into determining which of the Container/OpenStack/Cloud Foundry/Kubernetes/Mesos cabal to use and how they can be fit together no longer needs to occur? That the idea of having an application idea in the morning and deploying it in the afternoon is actually realistic because the infrastructure has already been assembled?

There are counters to this argument, clearly. If I’m an on-premise provider, I’d be making a lot of noise about “noisy neighbors,” large scale outages (because enterprises rarely have the internal numbers to know how they compare) and so on. But I’d be making a lot of noise because deep down I’d understand that, paradoxically, SaaS’s removal of choice is advantage that looks more compelling by the day. Which is why I tell all of our SaaS clients to articulate not only what they offer, but the technology that clients no longer have to evaluate, test and deploy as a result of going with a service, because that is a fundamental value they offer.

They just forget that at times, which happens when you’re used to competing head to head with on-premise every day.

Categories: Software-as-a-Service.

Lighting Out for the Territories

One of the things that gets me through a spring of being on a plane five out of six weeks is looking forward to summer vacation. A vacation, importantly, that involves zero planes. One of the best parts of living in Maine is that I don’t need to fly to experience some truly spectacular scenery. After months of running around from airport to airport, meeting to meeting, call to call, I take full advantage of the slowest month in our business to take a step back, relax and recharge for the fall sprint.

This year’s iteration will feature a week in a cottage on the water up north, some camping and, if all goes well, a fair amount of time spent on the water. With the summer’s major construction project already completed, unlike last year‘s, it will hopefully (knock on wood) be a vacation spent injury-free. Instead, I’ll try to plow through a dozen or more books, brew a beer or two and swim under one of my favorite waterfalls.

Though I’ll be doing a bit of work on the Monktoberfest over the next few weeks – some jobs are never done – as of a few hours from now I will not be checking email or voicemail. If you have a legitimate emergency, contact Marcia (marcia @ redmonk.com) who will know how to get in touch with me. Otherwise, I will see you all on the other side.

Enjoy your summers.

Categories: Personal.

At Long Last, Some Scheduling Help

Business Calendar & Schedule

Beginning in early March when I was lucky enough to get into the beta (which is still closed), I’ve been using X.ai’s automated personal assistant Amy to schedule meetings for me. The only real problem I’ve had using the technology has nothing to do with the technology. My issue, rather, is one of etiquette. The artificial intelligence behind Amy is good enough that with the exception of people who’ve heard of her, most people never realize they’re communicating with a bot. Which is a credit to the service, of course. But it leaves users with an important question: do I have to tell people on the other end that Amy’s not a person? Should I tell them?

Now you might be thinking that if the worst problem you have is with a new service is etiquette-related, that’s a good sign for the technology. And you’d be right.

As some have noticed, I have a long and unpleasant history with scheduling tools. As an analyst, a big part of my job is to talk to a lot of people, which in turn means that scheduling is a big part of my job. Which explains why I have tried, at one time or another, virtually every scheduling tool known to mankind. Some were people based – things like FancyHands. Others were services, some of which are still around, some of which have retired and one or two that have been forgotten entirely: Appointly, Bookd, Calendly, Doodle, Google Free/Busy, MyFreebusy, ScheduleOnce, Sunrise and on and on. None worked for me, though some were less bad than others. Which is why I still waste time – whether it’s mine or Juliane or Marcia’s – scheduling meetings.

The root problem with all of them, even MyFreeBusy or Tungle which generated the fewest complaints for our usage, was that it was one more moving piece in an already too complicated process. Request is made via email, check calendar, check third-party site, back to email, hope the slot is still open – rinse, lather, repeat. This was because the technical approach that most of the tools took was to implement an outboard, externalizable version of my calendar.

X.ai’s Amy breaks with this tradition. Instead of reproducing my actual calendar minus the private meeting details plus some booking features, Amy replicates a person – a personal assistant, more specifically. Scheduling from my end is very simple: I email back that I’d be happy to schedule a meeting, CC Amy and shortly thereafter I get a meeting invitation in my inbox. She (or he, X.ai has a male counterpart) does the legwork on the back end via nothing more complicated than email and I end up with an appointment on my calendar.

In terms of process, it’s in truth not that different from my end than sending an email saying I’ll take a meeting and including a link to my Tungle calendar. But I never have to explain what Appointly/Bookd/Calendly/Doodle/MyFreebusy/ScheduleOnce/Sunrise/etc is. I never have to field feedback about how the UI is confusing. I never have to explain the difference between a given service’s version of my calendar and my actual calendar, that just because requested an open slot slot on the former does not mean it’s written and confirmed into the latter. And perhaps most importantly, anyone can find and make a schedule request on a public calendar – which means I can be spammed with non-relevant requests. The only requests Amy schedules are those I’ve explicitly asked for. Big difference.

Amy’s not perfect yet. It’d be nice if I could whitelist email domains from clients, for instance, so that they could schedule me via Amy without having to ask me first, and book me for 60 minute increments while non-clients are limited to 30. There is a learning curve as well; used to a settings page, it wasn’t obvious to me at first that setting defaults like my conference number, weekday availability and so on would be done just by emailing Amy. There is also no way currently to grant her access to my colleague’s calendars to make group scheduling of multiple analysts simpler, or group features in general.

But as I said back in 2005, however, the scheduling space has been crying out for innovation, and Amy delivers that in spades – even if I’m not quite sure what the etiquette is for her usage yet. Here’s hoping we see artificial intelligence like Amy employed in many more use cases down the line, because she’s already made my life better just by tackling my calendar – who knows what else she could fix.

In the meantime, we’ll be waiting for access to open up so I can get my analyst colleagues on board, because I can’t see any reason not to standardize RedMonk on Amy as soon as she or it is publicly available. It’s that good.

Categories: Collaboration.

The SaaS Transition

Current Theory on "Cloud Computing"

One of the most common misinterpretations of the Software Paradox to date has been the assertion that traditional software license models are a binary, on or off switch. Many who read the book, or at least the title, come away with the impression that it’s arguing that it is impossible to generate revenue from software today. This is not, in fact, the argument being made. Not least because it’s very difficult to build the case that you can’t generate money from traditional software licensing when one company alone is generating double-digit billions of dollars in revenue from the sale of what is effectively two software products.

But more problematically, this simplistic interpretation obscures the reality that it remains very possible to generate revenue with software, it’s simply that the economic model for its monetization is evolving. One of the most common adaptations is to operate software as a service, and sell it in that fashion. This model has obviously been extant in the market for years; Salesforce, for one, went public in June of 2004. Over the past few years, however, we’ve seen a dramatic expansion in the availability of infrastructure software, rather than packaged applications, operated and sold as a service.

One of the latest examples of this is Amazon’s Aurora RDS flavor. Originally announced at its annual conference in November and made generally available last week, it is a bid to offer customers the performance of high end commercial databases in a MySQL compatible database. It is, in other words, a service whose addressable market theoretically includes both traditional Oracle customers and the volumes of MySQL users worldwide. Which makes it one of the more interesting arrows in AWS’ quiver, but just one for all of its engineering. AWS already had the ability to sell to both MySQL and Oracle customers, as well as PostgreSQL and SQL Server.

While AWS may be the poster-child for infrastructure software-as-a-service disruption, however, it doesn’t actually tell us much about the market direction. AWS is, after all, explicitly and solely a services-based business, so its focus on and attention to that model is no more surprising than Salesforce/Heroku’s efforts with respect to offering PostgreSQL in similar fashion. Services businesses, in other words, should be expected to provide service products. More telling with respect to testing the Software Paradox hypothesis would be traditionally on-premise software companies embracing service-oriented models. Which is what we’re seeing.

Most recently, IBM acquired the Y Combinator graduate Compose. At the time of aquisition, the company formerly known as MongoHQ provided services for Elasticsearch, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, Redis and RethinkDB. Compose adds new functional capabilities and experience to IBM’s portfolio, as well as additional expertise in running these datastores as services. Not that Compose is directionally new for IBM; a year and a half prior, the company picked up Cloudant, the CouchDB-derived database offered as a service. And this is on top of the services push the company is making with its Cloud Foundry-based Bluemix platform, which itself offers software such as Hadoop or Spark as a service.

The acceleration of IBM’s move towards services-business, from databases to application development, is understandable in the wider context of its financials. Over the last four years, here is IBM’s software revenue growth: 2011 (9.9%), 2012 (2.0%), 2013 (1.88%), 2014 (-1.9%). Whether or not one believes the Software Paradox to be true more broadly, then, two facts about IBM cannot be argued. First, that it is getting harder for the company to sell software. Second, that the longtime technology incumbent is investing heavily in software-as-a-service businesses across the board. The presumption here is that these two facts are not unrelated.

Some might argue that the struggles of an IBM or Oracle to reliably sell new licenses of on premise products is nothing more than a function of their particular markets. Relational databases, for example, are a mature market that should be expected to see minimal growth, particularly as it’s disrupted by various newer non-relational alternatives.

This argument makes sense on the surface, but ignores the reality that many of the would-be disruptors are eyeing services themselves as an additional growth channel, a means of hedging against the various trendlines that indicate traditional software monetization mechanisms are under pressure, or both. As a halfway step towards becoming more of a SaaS-type business, many commercial open source vendors are actively looking at their monitoring and management software as a potential step towards that model. The core software itself is sold in the traditional manner, but SaaS-style recurring revenue is the goal from the software – frequently proprietary – that manages and monitors the core open source asset.

Other startups are being even more proactive, however, and building or acquiring the resources necessary to spin up a legitimate SaaS product in-house, rather than relying on partners or partial-products like the aforementioned monitoring systems. Elastic, for example, may have acquired Found in part for the short term impact from the acquisition’s ability to package up Elasticsearch-as-a-service into containers deployable on premise. But over the longer term, the new ability to operate and run Elasticsearch as a public service is likely to be far more material to Elastic’s bottom line.

More importantly for Elastic, they timed the move well. As we move forward and see more service-oriented acquisitions like Compose or Found, the price for similar startups is only going to rise. Because the precedent for exits and escalating valuations is being established, but more importantly because on-premise only organizations are increasingly going to require the ability to offer customers not just a given software asset, but the ability to operate and maintain that software for them. Expect more SaaS startups and acquisitions, then, at higher prices.

None of which should be taken as a binary statement, again. On premise businesses have today and will continue to have the ability to generate both revenue and profits from traditional models. Some SaaS businesses, in fact, are effectively reverse commuting, taking their SaaS offerings, sealing them in a proprietary image, and selling it to customers that insist on on-premise deployments. GitHub has done this for years, and when we spoke with CircleCI last week on premise deployments were a growing opportunity for the SaaS company.

But even as on premise remains an opportunity, it is becoming more difficult to monetize efficiently. Selling software as a service is a very reasonable adaptation, but the window for adapting your on premise organization to the new reality will not remain open forever. Like it or not, the SaaS transition is underway.

Disclosure: Amazon, Elastic, IBM, Oracle and Salesforce are RedMonk customers. CircleCI and GitHub are not currently RedMonk customers.

Categories: Cloud, Software-as-a-Service.

The Implications of Cloud Native

Two months ago, “Cloud Native” was something of a new term, adopted most visibly by the Cloud Foundry project; a term both aspirational and unburdened by legacy at the same time. As of this week at OSCON, it’s a statement, borderline manifesto. As if it wasn’t enough that Google and a host of others adopted the term as well, it now has its own open source foundation – the imaginatively titled Cloud Native Computing Foundation. In the wake of its relatively sudden emergence, the obvious questions are first what is cloud native, and second what does it mean for the industry?

As far as the term itself, the short answer is a new method for building applications. The long answer depends in large part on who you ask.

There is a rough consensus on many Cloud Native traits. Containers as an atomic unit, for example. Micro-services as the means of both construction and communication. Platform independence. Multiple language support. Automation as a feature of everything from build to deployment. High uptime. Ephemeral infrastructure (cattle not pets). And so on.

Bigger picture, the pattern Cloud Native platforms have in common is that they are a further abstraction. Individual compute instances are subsumed into a larger, virtual whole, what has been referred to here as a fabric.

Where the consensus breaks down is what software – precisely – one might select to achieve the above.

One of the most interesting aspects of OSCON in the year 2015 is what may be taken for granted. In the early days of the conference, attendees were the rebel alliance, insurrectionists waging war against the proprietary empire and desperately asserting their legitimacy at the same time. Today, open source has won to the degree that you hear phrases like “single-entity open source is the new proprietary.” As Mike Olson once put it, “you can no longer win with a closed-source platform.” This victory for open source has many implications, but one much in evidence at OSCON this year is choice.

With open source rapidly becoming the default rather than a difficult-to-justify exception, naturally the market has more open source options available to it. Which on the one hand, is excellent news, because more high quality software is a good thing. Choice does not come without a cost, however, and that’s particularly evident in what is now known as the Cloud Native space.

One of the biggest issues facing users today is, paradoxically, choice. In years past, the most difficult decision customers had to make was whether to use BEA or IBM for their application server. Today, they have to sort through projects like Aurora, Cloud Foundry, Kubernetes, Mesos, OpenShift and Swarm. They have to understand where their existing investments in Ansible, Chef, Puppet and Salt fit in, or don’t. They have to ask how Kubernetes compares to Diego. Bosh to Mesos. And where do containers fit in with all of the above, which container implementation do they leverage and are they actually ready for production? Oh, and what infrastructure is all of this running on? Bare metal? Or is something like OpenStack required? Is that why Google joined? And on and on.

Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Cloud Native vision will be an increasingly appealing one for enterprises, how to get there is an open question. One that, with rare exceptions such as the Cloud Foundry Foundation’s OSCON slides, few of the participants are doing much to help answer concerned as they are with their own particular worldviews.

Beyond the problem of choice, Cloud Native is, as mentioned previously, deliberately and explicitly exclusionary. It posits that there are pre- and post-cloud development models, and implies that the latter is the future. Certainly it’s the recommended approach. Traditional packaged applications or legacy three-tier architectures, in other words, need not apply.

But if we step back, Cloud Native also represents the return trajectory of a very long orbit. Decades ago, early mainframe virtualization capabilities notwithstanding, the notion of computing was a single large machine. When you deployed a mainframe application, you didn’t decide which mainframe, it went to the mainframe. With the subsequent mini-computer and client-server revolutions came a different notion, one further propagated and accelerated by Infrastructure-as-a-Service offerings: individual servers – physical or otherwise – as the atomic unit of computing. Instead of hosting an application on a large machine, as in the mainframe days, architectures were composed of individual machine instances – whether measured in the single digits or tens of thousands.

This has been the dominant computing paradigm for decades. While the primary obstacle to using the first wave of PaaS platforms like Force.com and Google App Engine was their proprietary nature, their break from this paradigm was a secondary obstacle. PaaS, like Cloud Native today, implies a fundamental rethinking of the nature of infrastructure. Where once applications would be deployed to a forest of individual instances, these platforms instead would have users push them to a single fabric – one large, virtual computer. Almost as if we’re back to the mainframe, if the mainframe was a federation of large numbers of individual instances integrated via systems software with scheduling capabilities.

The current Cloud Native crop of software isn’t the first time we’ve seen this “single virtual computer” concept made manifest, of course. There are many examples of this extant today, the most familiar of which may be Hadoop. There are no individual Hadoop servers; there are instead fleets of machines linked via distributed filesystems and schedulers to jointly execute large scale data operations.

In that respect, Cloud Native can be thought of as Hadoop for modern applications. Applications aren’t pushed to a server or servers, they’re deployed to a fabric which decides where and how they are run. Running an application on a single large computer requires that it be constructed in a fundamentally different way than if it were run on lots of traditional instances, which is why Cloud Native is deliberately and explicitly exclusionary.

Many applications will never make that jump; it won’t be technically feasible or, more likely, economically practical, to become Cloud Native. But the trajectory at this point seems clear. Just as organizations today take their hardware cues from internet pioneers like Facebook, Google or Twitter, so too will they be following the internet pioneers’ lead in software infrastructure. If a company builds its datacenter like Facebook, why run it differently? Not in the binary, all-or-nothing sense, but rather that the idea of Cloud Native, virtual single-computer infrastructures or fabrics will become a mainstream deployment option in a way that they are not today. The question is: on what timeframe?

That question is incredibly important, because Cloud Native going mainstream would have profound implications for vendors, open source projects and hosted offerings alike. Cloud Native becoming a first class citizen, if not the default, would be a major opportunity for the projects branded around projects such as Cloud Foundry or Kubernetes, the vendors that support those projects and the companies that offer them as a service – the likes of Google, HP, IBM, Pivotal or Red Hat, in other words. Any transition that impacted standard notions of infrastructure, meanwhile, would require projects (e.g. OpenStack) or vendors (e.g. Amazon, VMware) focused on that paradigm to adapt, and potentially implement one of the Cloud Native projects themselves.

To date, in spite of the long term availability of fabric-like PaaS products – Force.com debuted in September of 2007, some thirteen months after EC2 – infrastructure models that resembled traditional physical architectures have dominated the market. Nor should we expect this crown to be surrendered in the near term, given Amazon’s comical growth rate. But an increasing number of datapoints suggest that the traditional infrastructure paradigm will be at least complemented by an alternative, whether it’s called Cloud Native, a fabric or a platform. The question is not whether Cloud Native will be a destination, then, but rather how one gets there.

Disclosure: Amazon, Ansible, Chef, CoreOS, HP, IBM, Pivotal, Red Hat, Salesforce.com and VMware are customers, as are multiple OpenStack participating projects. Facebook, Google, Puppet and Salt are not currently RedMonk customers.

Categories: Cloud.

Nadella’s Tough Decision

In late June, CEO Satya Nadella emailed Microsoft’s staff with an announcement that was part updated mission statement and part warning shot. In it, Nadella articulated his vision for Microsoft, which is “is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” A little less concrete than “a PC on every desk and in every home,” but it certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. Nadella also served notice, however, that “tough choices in areas where things are not working” were coming. The only question was what he meant.

On July 8th, he provided the answer. Microsoft cut 7,800 jobs from its phone business, or around 6% of its total work force, in what is generally understood to be a repudiation of Steve Ballmer’s acquisition of Nokia. Microsoft isn’t exiting the phone business entirely, but the company’s plans for the business have been dramatically scaled back to something more closely resembling Google’s Nexus hardware line.

While it’s difficult to argue the point that Microsoft’s phone business was, to borrow Nadella’s words, “not working,” there was nevertheless some surprise and discontent amongst observers of the company. The principal objection to this decommitment is perhaps best encapsulated by the Ars Technica piece “Analysis: Nadella threatens to consign Microsoft to a future of desktop obscurity.” These arguments can be summed up relatively simply: mobile is a vital and growing market, particularly when measured against its massive but stagnant desktop counterpart, and therefore Microsoft has no choice but compete in this market regardless of its performance to date.

Given the stakes of mobile, this argument is understandable. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the man responsible for the Nokia deal, was hardly the first to take major risks in search of mobile rewards. Google, who once enjoyed a close relationship with Apple, earned the Cupertino manufacturer’s undying enmity when the search giant felt compelled to jump into the market itself with Android.

But there are a few problems with the argument that Microsoft should have continued its Charge of the Light Brigade with what remained of Nokia.

  • First, there’s the question of approach. Even the critics of Nadella’s move would likely concede that Microsoft’s mobile platforms – both hardware and software – are also rans in their respective markets. This is in spite of years of investment and the multi-billion dollar acquisition of what was once one of the handset market’s preeminent manufacturers. If you’re going to argue, then, that Microsoft should not backtrack from the Nokia assets, then, it is necessary to provide a strategy for success in the market that Microsoft has not attempted yet. Otherwise, you’re essentially arguing that the company should throw good money after bad. If you want to argue that they should compete in a given market, that’s fine, but you have to be able to at the same time plausibly explain how they could compete in the market in question.
  • Second, there is the question of return. Let’s assume, counterfactually, that a unique and untried strategy was conceived and propelled Microsoft back to relevance. What would the return be? The market suggests that the financial return would be limited. As has been documented many times, in spite of its marketshare minority, the overwhelming majority of profits in the handset market are owned by Apple.

    It’s difficult to conceive of a scenario in which this would not be true of Microsoft as well. Microsoft has tried to duplicate Apple like margins in other hardware lines such as the marginally more successful Surface, but markets without carrier intermediaries are more straightforward. To be relevant in this market, Microsoft would likely have to follow the same course as the Android manufacturers, which is to keep margins minimal.

    Some have argued that Microsoft’s return for a minimally profitable hardware business would come elsewhere. The question is where? They don’t need a mobile platform to sell Office, that’s already available – thanks in part to Nadella – on both of the most popular mobile platforms. They don’t need a hardware platform to sell OS licenses, because the company has already conceded to the market reality: the market value of a mobile OS is $0, thanks to Google. What about the message of “Universal Windows Apps” for the legions of Windows developers out there? This idea has some intrinsic problems, in that independent of technology, universal applications are very diffcult to build because of intrinsic differences in form factors and input methods. But Microsoft also doesn’t need a flagship handset business to make this argument.

  • Third, there are other opportunities. Arguments that it’s mobile or else ignore the reality that the public cloud is going to be a large and growing market. And unlike mobile, where it was likely facing a sisphyean task, Microsoft is as well positioned in the public cloud as anyone save Amazon to capitalize on that growth. Some will look at Apple’s comical, absurd profit lines and conclude that Nadella’s decision to abandon the path Ballmer tried to set the company on is like walking away from a potentially winning lottery ticket. But thus far, that lottery has only produced one Apple.

    It is also worth asking whether or not Microsoft was positioned to compete effectively in a consumer market. While there are obvious exceptions – the Xbox, for example – Microsoft is at its core more business oriented than consumer. Gates may have wanted the PC in every home, but for most consumers the operating system was an afterthought: it was never an object of desire in the way that an iPhone is. Microsoft did well to extend into the home from the business, and to get consumers using its business-focused Office software, but the company was never really about consumers.

    Azure, on the other hand, is explicitly and expressly a business play, in a market that offers massive opportunities for growth. One that Microsoft has the DNA to be far more successful – and profitable – in than handsets.

Even if, as reported, Nadella was not in favor of the Nokia acquisition originally, it was undoubtedly, as he put it, a tough decision for the company. There’s the human cost of telling almost eight thousand people that they need to seek employment elsewhere, and there’s the public relations cost of telling the market the company you lead had effectively made a $7 billion dollar mistake. But as tough as it must have been, Nadella made the logical decision for the company. Now it’s up to Microsoft to capitalize on the focus he has afforded it.

Disclosure: Microsoft is not currently a RedMonk customer.

Categories: Mobile.

Meet the New Monk: Fintan Ryan

The problem with a good problem to have is that it’s still a problem. It is, by definition, better than whatever the alternative is. It is also, by definition, still a challenge. This is how I came to consider our recent hiring process. On the one hand, we had a legitimately overwhelming number of bright, talented and passionate candidates. On the other, well, we had a legitimately overwhelming number of bright, talented and passionate candidates. How does one sift through dozens of applicants who would all bring something different, something important, to the table?

In our case, the answer is: very deliberately. We went through multiple interview rounds. We reviewed submitted materials. We researched backgrounds. We tested. And internally we debated. And debated. And debated. We’d spend a half hour agonizing over whether one candidate would simply make it on to the next round. Just to help myself in the decision-making process, I put together a baseball-style scouting scoreboard for our finalists, ranking them on a variety of characteristics as a scout would, with a numerical ranking from 20-80.

We could have made our lives easier, of course, by narrowing the funnel. One of our candidates asked us about this, in fact:

This was my answer:

We kept the funnel wide, knowing that it would cost us time, because we wanted to get it right. Hiring a BMC developer and a Mayo Clinic scientist worked for us in the past, after all, so we talked to evangelists, electrical engineers, professors, COOs, consultants, a marketer or two and developers, naturally. The notes from the first round alone streched over 40 pages.

Eventually, however, our lengthy starting list was funneled down to a single name, and that name was Fintan Ryan.

Fintan may be familiar to some of you, whether it’s from the work he’s done with RedMonk in the past on a few conferences or some of the community work he’s done in London. In any event, those of you who follow what we do at RedMonk will have the chance to get to know him better.

As you’ve come to expect with new RedMonk analysts, Fintan brings an eclectic mix of skills to the table. He’s been a developer – holds a few US patents, in fact. He’s been the one tasked with managing developers as well, from waterfall to agile. He’s done yeoman’s work in community organizing, whether it’s conferences with us like IoT at Scale and Thingmonk or external events such as the CoreOS London meetups.

Analytically, his quantitative research chops are excellent; he did some very interesting research just prior to our opening, in fact, for no other reason than he was curious. And it’ll be nice to have someone else on board working in R. Beyond the technical skills, however, Fintan seems to have a knack for asking interesting questions, a trait that can be harder to find than the ability to answer them.

Most importantly, however, Fintan is passionate about what we do at RedMonk. From my perspective, almost every other requirement for this job is negotiable. Believing in what we do, however, isn’t optional.

Starting on August 5th, then, Fintan will be the next monk. With us, he’ll be covering the same broad spectrum of topics that we cover, and based on the quality of the research he did as a function of our interview process, you’re going to enjoy his work. In the meantime, please join me in welcoming Fintan to the RedMonk family, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to hunt him down on Twitter to say hello.

Categories: RedMonk Miscellaneous.

Fit Which Culture?

Now hiring

In early June, a number of people I follow on Twitter linked to this piece by Mathias Meyer entitled “Why Hiring for ‘Culture Fit’ Hurts Your Culture.” Although it was apparently triggered by the specific example of drinking as an example of company culture, Meyer correctly and succinctly articulates a broader definition of culture itself, one that encompasses everything from the copy you use for recruiting to the health merits of the food and drink provided in an office.

Culture, in other words, is everything – in the literal sense – that a company is. Every decision, every activity, every product, every message and every hire is both driven by and representative of an organization’s culture.

In the startup world in particular, culture can be a competitive weapon, a means of asymmetrically competing with larger, better resourced competitors.
If you’re a cash poor startup, you need more than equity to recruit against cushy, well paying gigs with Big Co. Culture is, at least in theory, an asset that differentiates a startup from other opportunities. On the one hand, Big Cos offer stability, good money and real benefits. On the other, startups have higher theoretical upside from a compensation standpoint – but that’s not enough. Enter culture.

Most large company cultures, if they were ever employee-centric, eventually find that that scales poorly. Which is, as an aside, why so many startups that grow past the point of being a startup have significant HR issues. For the smaller startups, however, perks that might not scale to a large organization become a selling point. Startup culture, in other words, is by its very nature intended not just to run a business, but to serve as a recruitment tool.

Which is intrinsically neither good nor bad, in my view. Culture, in this sense, is just a tool. The problem is that while startup culture is designed to appeal to potential employees, what appeals to one employee may be unappealing or impractical for another. And when the fact that one aspect is unappealing or impractical is used as an organizational filter, under the banner of ‘hiring for culture fit,’ you have a problem. Hiring only people like you is not a great approach, for reasons that are hopefully obvious. Worse, it’s both an insidious problem to identify and one that can be difficult to remedy. If a majority of employees have bought into, and to some extent signed up for, an aspect of a given culture that may need to be scaled back or deprecated entirely, they are likely fight it.

All of that being said, I don’t believe Meyer’s answer – “Stop using ‘culture fit’ ” – is necessarily the correct approach. The obvious risk, of course, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, it’s important to be absolutely clear on which aspects of your culture – specifically – are being considered during the hiring process.

At RedMonk, for example, alcohol is to some extent a part of our culture. Not in the way that it is for startups, because none of us work in the same city. But in the Monktoberfest and Monki Gras, at least, we deliberately incorporate craft beer into the experience. But while we tried to have some fun with our job description, we have never and will never consider whether someone drinks, or what they drink (even if it’s major domestics), as part of the hiring process. Because it’s simply not relevant to being an analyst, and therefore will never be a part of how we evaluate a candidate for that role.

There are cultural aspects, however, that are critical to us. Personality, for example, is important. Whether someone fits into our distributed culture, for example, is very relevant to us, as is our estimation of how they will in the cultural sense represent RedMonk while at events, with clients and so on. The most crucial cultural consideration, however, is whether a candidate believes in what we do. While we are not blind to other lenses, we are passionate about the importance of developers at RedMonk and believe that this underpins the work that we produce. If someone lacks that same passion, they probably aren’t a great fit for us.

There seems to be little question, ultimately, that hiring for “culture fit” can be a mistake, one that reinforces organizational stereotypes and limits organizational diversity. As someone put it to me recently, when you hire your friends, you’re likely to look around eventually and realize that a number of them were hired just because they were your friends, not on their merits – and they’re simply happy to be there. Which is a problem for everyone.

But removing “culture fit” from the equation entirely seems to be an over-rotation in the opposite direction, one that may lead to the hire of employees who are legitimately poor fits for one reason or another.

Instead of dismissing ‘culture fit’ entirely, then, the best approach seems to be to whittle down the huge, unmanageably broad definition of culture down to just those few characteristics that do matter. There are many more aspects of a given culture that don’t matter than do, and should have no impact on hiring. But there are always a few that should play a role, so understanding what those are and being explicit about them is key.

Categories: People.

The RedMonk Programming Language Rankings: June 2015

This iteration of the RedMonk Programming Language Rankings is brought to you by HP. The tools you want, the languages you prefer. Built on Cloud Foundry, download the HP Helion Development Platform available today.


It being the third quarter, it is time at RedMonk to release our bi-annual programming language rankings. As always, the process has changed very little since Drew Conway and John Myles White’s original analysis late in 2010. The basic concept is simple: we regularly compare the performance of programming languages relative to one another on GitHub and Stack Overflow. The idea is not to offer a statistically valid representation of current usage, but rather to correlate language discussion (Stack Overflow) and usage (GitHub) in an effort to extract insights into potential future adoption trends.

In general, the process has changed little over the years. With the exception of GitHub’s decision to no longer provide language rankings on its Explore page – they are now calculated from the GitHub archive – the rankings are performed in the same manner, meaning that we can compare rankings from run to run, and year to year, with confidence. There was, however, a minor issue with this month’s run which had an interesting impact which will be discussed in more detail below.

In the first quarter run, we noted that an erosion in the typically strong correlation between how a language performed on GitHub and Stack Overflow had been arrested. Down to .74 in Q314, the correlation in Q1 was back up to .76. For the third quarter, however, the correlation has resumed its slide; this ranking’s .73 represents an all time low. The correlation between the two properties remains strong from a statistical standpoint, but it will be interesting to observe whether the two properties continue to drift apart.

Before we continue, please keep in mind the usual caveats.

  • To be included in this analysis, a language must be observable within both GitHub and Stack Overflow.
  • No claims are made here that these rankings are representative of general usage more broadly. They are nothing more or less than an examination of the correlation between two populations we believe to be predictive of future use, hence their value.
  • There are many potential communities that could be surveyed for this analysis. GitHub and Stack Overflow are used here first because of their size and second because of their public exposure of the data necessary for the analysis. We encourage, however, interested parties to perform their own analyses using other sources.
  • All numerical rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. We rank by numbers here strictly for the sake of interest. In general, the numerical ranking is substantially less relevant than the language’s tier or grouping. In many cases, one spot on the list is not distinguishable from the next. The separation between language tiers on the plot, however, is generally representative of substantial differences in relative popularity.
  • GitHub language rankings are based on raw lines of code, which means that repositories written in a given language that include a greater number amount of code in a second language (e.g. JavaScript) will be read as the latter rather than the former.
  • In addition, the further down the rankings one goes, the less data available to rank languages by. Beyond the top tiers of languages, depending on the snapshot, the amount of data to assess is minute, and the actual placement of languages becomes less reliable the further down the list one proceeds.

(click to embiggen the chart)

Besides the above plot, which can be difficult to parse even at full size, we offer the following numerical rankings. As will be observed, this run produced several ties which are reflected below (they are listed out here alphabetically rather than consolidated as ties because the latter approach led to misunderstandings). Note that this is actually a list of the Top 21 languages, not Top 20, because of said ties.

1 JavaScript
2 Java
3 PHP
4 Python
5 C#
5 C++
5 Ruby
8 CSS
9 C
10 Objective-C
11 Perl
11 Shell
13 R
14 Scala
15 Go
15 Haskell
17 Matlab
18 Swift
19 Clojure
19 Groovy
19 Visual Basic

As with last quarter, JavaScript maintains a slim margin on second-place Java, with the caveat that the difference between numerical rankings is slight. The language’s sustained performance, however, reflects the language’s versatility and growing straegic role amongst startups and enterprises alike.

Aside from those two languages, the Top 10 has been static. With minor execeptions, in fact, it has remained static for several years. While we see periodic arguments from advocates of a particular language, or a particular style or type of language, the simple fact is that the group of the most popular languages has changed little and shows little propensity for future change, though there are two notable would-be challengers discussed below. This raises some interesting questions about language adoption and whether fragmentation has reached its apogee.

Outside of the Top 10, however, we have several changes worth discussing in more detail.

  • Go: A year ago, we predicted that Go would become a Top 20 language within a six to twelve month timeframe. Six months ago, it achieved that goal landing as the #17 language in our January rankings. In this quarter’s run, Go continues on that same trajectory, up another two spots to #15. In the process, it leapfrogged Haskell and Matlab. While the language has appeared at times to be in the trough of disillusionment following an extended honeymoon period, none of the periodic criticism has had any apparent impact on the project’s growth. And with an increasingly strategic foundational role within projects that are themselves strategic, Go’s future appears bright. It’s also worth considering whether the Supreme Court decision could eventually, indirectly lead to a more significant change in Go’s fortunes given recent project activity.

  • Erlang: One of the long time choices for developers struggling with concurrency, Erlang jumped one spot on our rankings from #26 to #25, which merits mention because of a recent change in the licensing of the project. Two weeks ago, at the urging of a few prominent Erlang community members, Erlang dropped its early-MPL derived Erlang Public License in favor of the Apache License, Version 2. While a change of this type will not by itself do much to affect the project’s fortunes, removing friction to the adoption of a project – which transitioning from a vanity license to a widely accepted public alternative represents – is certainly a welcome development.

  • Julia/Rust: Historically, we’ve discussed these two languages together because they were both languages to watch, they were closely ranked and on similar trajectories. Last quarter, however, Rust put some distance between itself and its erstwhile rankings-mate, jumping eight spots to Julia’s three. This time around, however, Julia (#52) was the higher jumper, moving up four spots to Rust’s two (#48) – too bad that information wasn’t available in time for JuliaCon. As for Rust, anecdotal evidence has been accumulating for some time that the language was piquing the interest of developers from a variety of spaces, and the quantitative evidence supporting this observation is ample. Both remain languages to keep an eye on.

  • CoffeeScript: This ranking makes the fourth out of five quarters in which CoffeeScript has dropped. From its high ranking of 17 in Q3 of 2013, in the four runs since, it has clocked in at 18, 18, 21 and now 22. It’s not impossible that the language finds a foothold and at least stabilizes its position, but its prospects for re-entering the Top 20 appear dim both because of its own lack of momentum and the competition around it.

  • Dart / Visual Basic: Two quick notes on languages we’re asked about frequently. Visual Basic dropped from 17 into a three-way tie for 19th along with Clojure and Groovy. That’s fine company to be keeping, but the future of VB in the Top 20 is unclear. Dart, for its part, is a language that we field regular questions on both because of its Google pedigree and its ambitions vis a vis JavaScript. To date, however, while Dart has shown steady growth, it’s growth has been minimal next to its Google-born sibling, Go. Dart moved up one spot this quarter, from #34 to #33.

  • Swift: As mentioned at the top, this month’s rankings had a minor issue. At the request of a few parties ahead of Apple’s WWDC, we went to take a look at the rankings to determine how Swift had performed given its meteoric rise from #68 to #22. Unfortunately, due to a change in page structure, our automated Stack Overflow scrape had failed. So we narrowed the scope, did a quick manual lookup of the Stack Overflow numbers for the Top 30 from the prior run, and calculated out rankings just for that subset. For this partial run, we had a 3-way tie for 18th place and then Lua and Swift tied for 21, leaving Swift just outside the Top 20.

    For our official rankings, however, we obviously required a complete set of Stack Overflow data, so we collected a full run shortly after WWDC. The partial results from our June 1st run were of course discarded so as to compare all languages on an even footing. When we ran the full rankings then, with the new, complete Stack Overflow set we discovered something interesting: Swift had jumped from #21 to #18. Call it the WWDC effect, but Stack Overflow in particular surged as is evident from the chart and pushed Swift up just enough to displace the 19th place finishers. This means that it’s last three rankings in order are 68, 22 and 18. While we caution against reading too much into the actual numerical placement, Swift is certainly the first language to crack the Top 20 in a year. By comparison, one of the fastest moving non-Swift languages, Go, ranked #32 in the original 2010 dataset finally cracking the Top 20 in January of this year. Even if you assign little importance to the actual ranking, then, there is no debate that Swift is growing faster than anything else we track. The forthcoming release of Swift as open source and availability of builds for Linux, as well, should theoretically provide even more momentum going forward.

The Net

For several quarters now, we’ve seen a pattern of little to no change at the top of the rankings, with the list becoming more volatile in direct proportion to a descent down the rankings. Go and Swift represent the first two potential challengers for the Top 10 we’ve seen in some time. It will be interesting to see if one of Go or Swift can punch their way into an otherwise static Top 10, and if so, on what timetable. At a minimum, Go would have to displace Objective C, Perl, Shell, R and Scala. Perl and Shell are everywhere but lack the volume of languages higher up the spectrum, while R and Scala are very popular languages but specifically purposed. The best bet for weakening Objective C, meanwhile, is accelerating Swift adoption. Swift, for its part, has to tackle the above list, as well as Matlab, Haskell and Go itself.

Between Go’s increasing popularity as a modern back end language and Swift’s bid for traction outside of the iOS landscape, the next few iterations of this list will be interesting to watch.

Update: Please note that in the plot above the position of Ada and AGS Script are incorrect. Their Stack Overflow rankings were over-represented and thus the plot values are high.

Categories: Programming Languages.

Apple, Google and Privacy

Please!

On the surface, Apple WWDC and Google I/O are exactly what they seem to be: showcases for the company’s respective audiences. The ever longer keynotes are meticulously scripted and rehearsed to dramatically unveil increasingly bloated product portfolios and feature catalogs whose purpose in turn is to create excitement if not outright lust. The perfect show for either firm is one where an audience member would happily trample the person sitting next to them to get their hands on the latest object of desire debuted on stage.

On another level, however, these shows are implicit statements of direction. As Mahatma Gandhi put it in a very different context, “action expresses priorities.” Google’s I/O show, as described, made its priorities clear: Google is still intent on organizing the world’s information. The win for Google is more data to refine its advertising model, which represents 89% of the company’s total revenue. The win for users is services such as Google Photos – at the cost, arguably, of their privacy. By leveraging its access to so many users and so many photos, Google’s machine learning algorithms are good enough now to tell that one picture of a teenager and another of an infant are, in fact, the same person.

The service is made possible, of course, by tremendously intelligent algorithms created by tremendously intelligent engineers. But its lifeblood, ultimately, is data. As Anand Rajaraman wrote years ago, more data usually beats better algorithms. Which implies that the single most important assset for Google is not in fact software, but access.

Which is why Benedict Evans’ assertion that what keeps Google up at night is reach rings true. In a world absent Android, and where mobile’s corrosive erosion of PC usage continues, Google would be uncomfortably dependent on Apple, at a minimum, for the reach it requires to function. From search to maps to photos, Apple would be in a position to control, on a granular level, what Google had access to.

Because this future was not hard to predict, however, Google not only built Android, but saw it blossom into a popular, volume platform – one that is compared to Windows on a volume basis, in fact. Reach must still be a concern for the company, for as popular as Android is iOS is a massive platform in its own right and far more opaque to the search giant. But at least in Android it has guaranteed itself unfettered access to a large subset of the market’s available telemetry.

Which is essential, because Google’s vision for computing is clearly cloud centric, and more particularly driven by the aggregated of value of millions of users living in the same cloud. The same way that Google can determine where traffic is congested by noticing that thousands of GPS-enabled Android devices are slowing down is the same way that the company can determine that because a million fans of obscure band A have liked obscure band B means that there’s a reasonable chance you will too. “Did you mean?” is incredible when you own the majority of the world’s search traffic, not so much for a single user.

It’s not that Google has given up innovating on the device itself – see Project Soli, for example – but it correctly understands that services is where the company is strongest. Assuming, of course, that its pipeline of user telemetry is never jeopardized.

But if that’s Google’s existential concern, what is Apple’s? According to Evans, it is the fear that developers leave. This is, to me, less plausible. First, there is the fact that Apple developers and users have a reputation for being fanatically loyal. That could always change, of course, but the fact that iOS generates more revenue on a per user basis than Android gives developers an additional financial incentive to stick around. My concern, if I were Apple, would not be the retention of loyal and (relatively) well compensated developers.

If we assume that Apple’s actions express its priorities, and by extension its fears, then, what does Apple fear? My bet would be services.

Many have noted that Apple has substantially cranked up its rhetoric around privacy lately. At WWDC, for example, Apple made a point of noting that its “Proactive” update to Siri – one intended to match some features of Google Now – operates off of on device data only. A week prior to that, Tim Cook was even more explicit, saying that Apple doesn’t want user data and that users shouldn’t be forced to trade access to information for a free service. To give you an idea of tone, his speech was characterized as “blistering.”

The obvious question is: why is Apple making such an issue of privacy now? The simplest and most charitable explanation, if one that is potentially naive, is that Apple as a corporation is genuinely concerned with user privacy. It is equally plausible, however, that Apple’s attitude here is simply a reflection of its revenue model, a manifestation of its issues trying to build services, or both.

Regarding the former, clearly Apple’s primary revenue engine is not user data, as with Google. Apple generates its unparalleled margins instead by selling a polished hardware and software combination. Cook is, in this sense, being entirely truthful: the Apple of today doesn’t want or need user data. Skeptics, however, will argue that Apple’s primary and overriding concern is its bottom line, and that sentiment has little to do with the current privacy-as-a-feature approach.

With the general elevation of user privacy to mainstream issue in the wake of the Snowden revelations, however, Apple certainly couldn’t be faulted for highlighting its lack of interest in user data and its competitor’s corresponding reliance on it. All’s fair in love in war, as they say. The important question for Apple, however, is whether it can keep these promises to its users.

As Om Malik writes in the New Yorker:

Apple was rather short on details in explaining how it will achieve its goal of using, learning, and building better services without collecting data on a global scale.

Certainly Apple will be able to infer certain information from the device itself. It seems clear, however, that single device inference will always be limited when measured against algorithms that can run against hundreds of thousands or millions of similar devices. More data beats better algorithms, remember.

Which means that Apple has explicitly and publicly committed itself to not leveraging one of the most important ingredients in building the kinds of proactive services its own product development track acknowledges are in demand. More problematically, services are not an area in which Apple has distinguished itself historically, so operating in this space with a self-imposed handicap is unlikely to be helpful.

Apple in the form of Tim Cook, then, seem to be making a bet that users will value their privacy over new functionality and new capabilities. That they will voluntarily choose a less capable platform if it means they don’t have sacrifice user information. This is certainly possible, but if we assume that the average developer is more attuned to privacy concerns than the average citizen, charts like these would concern me. They would be, in fact, what kept me up at night if I worked at Apple.

Categories: Mobile, Privacy, Services.